Delta Tooling Co. is placing its money on the growth of in-mold lamination of automotive parts — even though the process is just beginning to gain the attention of Big Three carmakers.
In June, the large Auburn Hills, Mich., toolmaker signed an agreement with mold maker Georg Kaufmann AG of Busslingen, Switzerland, to cut tools in North America using Kaufmann's proprietary in-mold laminating technology.
But to make the tools, the company must first sell the tools to a conservative and entrenched automotive industry. The agreement, which started in January, puts the 44-year-old mold-making company in an unfamiliar role: that of a marketer for a molding process.
In some ways, the rapidly growing mold shop is hitching its future to the reception the technology receives from its customers.
``Right now, we're just trying to get the ball rolling and sell the technology to suppliers and OEMs,'' said Robert Esling, Delta sales manager for molds. ``The first step is to get out and stimulate a market that doesn't necessarily understand a lot about the process. It's been an interesting experience.''
Delta hopes that its marketing push is only temporary while the technology catches fire. To that end, the company has hired Swiss Impulse Inc., a marketing company in Gastonia, N.C., to help pitch in-mold techniques to high-level auto executives.
The technique — also called back molding or low-pressure molding — involves shooting a substrate material, such as polypropylene or ABS, behind a cover skin in an open mold. Doing so produces a finished part in a single step through an injection or compression molding process or a combination of the two, depending on part thickness and surface finish.
In Europe, in-mold laminating has become a matter of course. Carmakers like BMW AG, Mercedes-Benz AG and Volvo Car Corp. use the process regularly to mold interior trim components, such as door pillars and trunk pieces. The parts are made with fabric, vinyl or wood grain cover skins.
Kaufmann, a $15 million company, has built more than 300 in-mold laminating tools since 1988 for those carmakers, according to Thomas Huber, president of Swiss Impulse.
The specialized tools, which can cost 11-20 percent more than traditional production molds, feature custom-designed valve gates and mold cavities to allow the back-end injection of the substrate resin.
In America, cost and a reluctance to change have been obstacles to using in-mold lamination, Huber said. Besides the tooling cost, the process requires that existing presses be retrofitted or new, lower-pressure machines be purchased. Low pressure reduces heat stress, which can cause warpage in the finished part. Yet, Delta officials said the gains outweigh the investment costs. The process eliminates the need for a solvent-based adhesive to bond a substrate to a cover stock, thus saving steps and avoiding emissions concerns and fogging inside a vehicle.
In addition, secondary laminating and fabric die cutting are also eliminated, Huber said.
Recent signs indicate the technology is starting to take root. One example is a Nashville, Ill., interior trim plant operated by supplier Ligma Corp., a division of Magna International Inc. of Markham, Ontario.
The Ligma facility recently began using in-mold lamination to make door panels for an unspecified Big Three carmaker, said Manfred Fritsch, Ligma's plastics development manager. Volume is expected at less than 100,000 panels per year, he added.
The vinyl door panels are back compression molded to a PP substrate. The facility uses a Krauss-Maffei press with 600 tons of clamping force to do the work. The plant is considering adding a second press later this year, when it begins making in-mold-laminated door panels for a Japanese automaker.
``There is so much cost savings to be gained from the process,'' Fritsch said. ``I'm sure it will be incorporated over time here and eventually looked upon as standard.''
In contrast, Fritsch added that two European plants operated by Eybl Durmont AG, a company 90 percent owned by Magna, make a combined 17,000 parts a day using in-mold lamination.
In North America, Ford Motor Co's Utica trim plant in Shelby Township, Mich., uses the process to injection mold vinyl door panels. The plant uses eight low-pressure Williams-White vertical presses with 1,300 tons of clamping force.
Tier 1 suppliers Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich., and Blue Water Plastics Inc. of Marysville, Mich., also use the technology on a limited basis. Another Tier 1 supplier, United Technologies Automotive in Dearborn, Mich., has ordered prototype in-mold tools from Delta, Esling said.
Delta is doing its part to advance its use. The company has a roomful of in-mold interior parts — most coming from Kaufmann and European carmakers — to showcase.
Delta is also in the process of retrofitting a 220-ton spotting press with an extruder head to make in-mold parts on its grounds. By next year, the company also hopes to add a vertical compression press at its 87,000-square-foot Auburn Hills mold plant specifically to make prototype parts with the technology.
The firm is one of the nation's larger toolmakers, recording sales of $40 million during 1996. Delta does prototype and production tooling of injection, compression, reaction injection and blow molds for automotive and consumer products. Its customers include Ford, Textron Automotive Co. Inc. in Troy, Mich., and truck maker Freightliner Corp.
The marketing process is slow but encouraging. Esling and Huber said they've been laughed out of some corporate boardrooms but found interest in others. At the same time, requests for quotes have recently started coming from several suppliers for in-mold injection tools, Esling said.
``We've done some minor advertising every week, and somebody hears about it and calls us out of the blue,'' Esling said. ``It's slow but the curve seems to be going up.''